Breaking the double glass ceiling

As part of International Women's Day, I spoke at an event which addressed the two-fold challenge faced by some women at work: not only do they face discrimination on the basis of their gender, but also on the basis of their religion or the colour of their skin.

This conference attempted to answer an important question: is there a ‘double glass ceiling’? If there is, how do we, as a society, and as politicians, best dismantle it?

The first glass ceiling is well known, even if it still hasn’t been addressed thoroughly. It is the challenge for women at work; in business, enterprise and employment, who face unique obstacles because of their gender.

The second glass ceiling is acknowledged less often – it is the challenge faced people at work that stems from their religion or their ethnicity.

What does this ‘second glass ceiling’ mean in concrete terms? It means that religion and ethnicity is used, explicitly or otherwise, as a criteria to evaluate a person’s fitting in the labour market, even though it has nothing to do with a person’s skills and competence. In combination with purely gender-based discrimination, BAME and religious women can face enormous difficulties at work or in business.

All women face challenges in the labour market, and there is plenty of evidence before our eyes: from the gender pay-gap, which amounts to almost 15% in the UK, to the embarrassingly low number of women in senior roles in their industries.

On top of gender-based challenges, women are likely to face discrimination due to their religious identity or ethnicity. Being Christian, Jewish, Muslim or of other faiths might hamper a woman’s chances to obtain or advance in a business environment.

In the case of Muslim women, the bias is manifested at several levels, as a composition of gender-based, ethnic, and religious factors.

Discrimination can begin “on paper”- when recruiters associate the person’s name to an ethnic minority group. Black, Asian and Minority Ethnicity women (BAME) face even more prejudices that would not affect white women.

Discrimination continues with appearance, for those women who are ‘visibly religious’, because they wear the hijab, niqab or burqa.

Muslim women face significant levels of racism, harassment, abuse and, in some cases, violence due to their religious identity. It means that it is more likely for Muslim women to be targeted for hate crimes. According to UK-based NGO “Tell MAMA”, of the cases of women targeted with verbal abuse in person, 68% were wearing identifiably religious clothing.

Breaking the double glass ceiling for women is a challenge, but it is one for everybody. Just as breaking the gender-based glass ceiling is not only task for women, but also for men; the second glass ceiling is a challenge for us all to tackle, regardless of our background.